The leader of the Public Service Alliance of Canada – the union representing more than 100,000 striking federal workers – is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to get involved directly in negotiations, as talks appear to have reached a standstill over the past 24 hours.
PSAC president Chris Aylward told the media Wednesday afternoon that the government was stalling at the bargaining table by refusing to budge on its wage offer of 9 per cent over three years – the same offer that was presented to the union before the strike began a week ago.
“At 7 p.m. last night [Tuesday] the employer sent an e-mail to our bargaining team saying that they are not moving from their position. They are telling us that we have to move. That’s not how bargaining works,” Mr. Aylward said.
He added that if Mr. Trudeau were to directly get involved in bargaining, it would help settle the dispute.
“The Prime Minister can either get involved to settle this or turn his back on striking workers,” he said, noting that it was now up to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, Chrystia Freeland, to come up with a new mandate for the Treasury Board that would allow them to present the union with a higher wage offer.
“If the Treasury Board is saying they can’t move up their wages, then they need a new mandate. PM Trudeau, you can give them that mandate.”
Any major changes to the amounts Ottawa is willing to spend to get a deal done would need the approval of Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Freeland.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Treasury Board president Mona Fortier expressed frustration with what she described as unreasonable and unaffordable union demands.
“We continue to negotiate. We’re still at the table. But I am just in a place where I’m hoping for some movement today,” she said. “We keep receiving unreasonable and unaffordable offers.”
The minister repeated her previous statements that the government is not willing to “write a blank cheque” and stood by the offer of a 9-per-cent raise over three years. Ms. Fortier said this week the government had improved its offer by including a signing bonus, but has not revealed the size of that bonus.
The PSAC has been seeking a 13.5-per-cent wage increase over three years for 120,000 of its members. When asked by reporters if PSAC had reduced its wage demand, Mr. Aylward was unclear – he said the union had “compromised” and moved on its wage offer, but would not specify by exactly how much.
Michael Wernick, former clerk of the privy council and the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management at the University of Ottawa, described the union’s attempt to get Mr. Trudeau involved as “clumsy.”
“The PM isn’t going to undercut his minister. Both sides know that with every day this goes on a back-to-work bill becomes more likely, and are feeling the stress,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Remote work is also a contentious issue between both sides. In his address to the media, Mr. Aylward said the Treasury Board’s position that remote work is a managerial right “holds absolutely no water.” He said the board had been telling the union for a week that it has been working on a counteroffer around remote work language, but the union had yet to see it.
The strike affecting about 155,000 public servants is now in its eighth day. About 47,000 of those workers are not striking because they have been deemed essential.
Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said the strike is having a clear impact on casework in his department.
“So far there have been tens of thousands of files not processed that otherwise would have been processed,” he said, adding the full consequences won’t be clear until it is known when the strike will come to an end.
The strike has also threatened to severely slow down passport processing, employment insurance and Canada Pension Plan claims. Canadians who need to renew their passports for leisure travel are out of luck – the government has said it will only be processing passport applications for emergency purposes such as travel related to an illness or death in the family.
Some striking public servants in the crowd on Parliament Hill expressed disappointment with the status of the negotiations, but said they support the union push for a wage settlement that addresses rising costs owing to inflation.
Rick Duthie, who works for Library and Archives Canada, said the standoff is about proper recognition for the hard work and dedication of public servants who help support Canadians. He said part of the importance of speaking up is to challenge public opinion about those on strike.
“We’re a little dismayed of what’s being said about everybody here,” Mr. Duthie explained. “Saying things like ‘we’re lazy or we’re overpaid.’ We don’t like that messaging because it’s simply not true.”
Public Health Agency of Canada worker AJ Laflamme expressed a similar sentiment.
“We’re all superhardworking and passionate about what we do,” she said. “I think what we do is important, and seeing that messaging in the public, it kind of hurts because all my co-workers work really hard and put in the extra hours.”
Ms. Laflamme said she supports the union negotiating team. “I’m willing to stay out as long as it takes to get that kind of deal,” she said.
But the current sentiment of striking workers could change the longer the strike goes on, said Robert Hickey, an employment relations expert at Queen’s University. “Pressure will increase substantially with the prospect of the first missed paycheque. Workers may begin making their own cost benefit analysis about how much money they are losing on strike versus what a raise will provide.”
Prof. Hickey also said he believed the government was not yet feeling the kind of political pressure or public support for striking workers that would force them to capitulate to union demands.